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Connection, Creativity, and Joy: How Loose Parts Support Children’s Learning

In 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote of the “theory of loose parts,” an approach to environmental design highlighting the critical role open-ended materials play in supporting children’s creativity, inventiveness, and self-directed learning through play. Combined with an evolving understanding of how early learning environments might be interpreted and prepared – an ongoing dialogue with Reggio Emilia regarding the role of “the third teacher” – the theory of loose parts has greatly influenced the practice of many early childhood educators. In recent years, enthusiasm for loose parts-fueled play has been supported by the incredibly popular Loose Parts series of books by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky and inspired by peer-to-peer sharing among both teachers and parents on social media.

In order to learn more about how and why teachers integrate loose parts into their learning environments, I interviewed Gabriel Boyer, a co-lead teacher in a classroom of 2-3 year-olds' at Wild Lilac.

Over the course of the 2018-2019 school year the teachers took the bold approach of dedicating a significant portion of their classroom to large loose parts play – the type of loose parts usually found outdoors.

The photographs of children engaged in play help tell the story of how their year unfolded while Gabriel’s thoughts provide context to deepen our understanding of the role and importance of loose parts in supporting young children’s growth and development.

Why did you decide to provide large loose parts in your classroom? Were you responding to any needs or interests you were seeing?

It felt really natural to do bigger loose parts. The children just started school together and were building deeper trust with the school, their teachers, and their classmates. When they would accidentally connect – that energy was palpable. My overarching goal was to expand and reflect that connection whenever I could. There were two older children, 3 year-olds', who were putting a couple of chairs together as tractors. This went on for a couple of weeks. Then they started doing it parallel. Until one day, right before lunch, seven children joined together and built their own tractors. This was the first time they initiated play as a giant group. For this cohort at this time, this was huge, and it needed to be honored. It had to be reflected and expanded. This is what felt natural. It was about finding an appropriate response to further children's catalytic connections. The question was how to offer chair-sized pieces for big loose part play.

How did you introduce the loose parts to children? Did you provide any modeling, scaffolding? Have any conversations or make any agreements with the children?

I had some nervousness about it, so we started with a more teacher-directed structure. In the beginning, big parts were offered only during invitation time (in small groups). As children gained experience, they showed greater knowledge and navigation of the involved risks and greater competence in building. Teachers noticed this and became more comfortable, too. Materials were available more often. Towards the end of the school year, children could use the materials whenever they wanted, just like any other material.

There were some key moments in this evolution. In the beginning, I told the children we wanted to help them play, but because big parts were risky, grown-ups needed to supervise. I also did demos. Several times I brought different constellations of blocks to our meeting. I showed them how some blocks slip when stacked and some don't. I showed them what would happen if a high structure fell on a child's head. There was also a demo of how a child might fall if they climbed a slippery structure. I asked the children what we should do? They were enthusiastic to tell me "don't climb it."

These demos easily led to making more agreements. Again during meeting time, I asked them how do we play with big loose parts safely? I wrote down their ideas and posted the list near the materials. It was often referenced during play. It worked well to say, "oh so and so said it's too dangerous to climb on two blocks." After a while, children wanted to change these agreements, so we continued discussing different ideas, and made small changes to the list as needed. As teachers became more comfortable with the children's skills, we opened it up to less teacher support and more inventive, perhaps riskier structures.

How did you decide what parts to include, and what considerations did you make about how to support this play in the physical environment (regarding space, safety, etc.)?

I wanted to have a variety of different shaped pieces but also wanted the pieces to work together. At least, I wanted to know they could work together. It was okay if I didn't know how they would together since the children would figure that out themselves. Luckily Wild Lilac was storing materials for Portland Free Play (a nonprofit supporting free play in elementary schools) and I was able to peruse their pile. We found crates, heavy-duty cardboard called honeycomb, some big spools. Later we added cushions from an old chair, large wooden blocks, and large carpet squares. When they weren't used, we tucked away materials into a corner. We put a blanket on it to signal they weren't available but realized we didn't really need that pretty quickly.

One thing I wanted to do was offer more materials to decorate their structures. Sometimes they would find materials from the room and bring them over, but it would have been nice to have a drawer or two full of small fabrics. With smaller scarves, beads. It would have been interesting to offer materials that would have made more semi-permanent structures. Could children learn to use zip ties?

How did the availability of the space and materials shape and support children's play?

Often one would start building. One, two or three more would join in building. When it finished, they would drive or start being puppies or doctors. The buildings were about playing together. Children could materialize their idea fairly immediately and others would see that and join in. When it's hard to find the words or the courage to invite someone to play, children could just start building. In this way the buildings became a way to initiate play.

What were some of the important or meaningful things you observed about children's learning with/through the use of large loose parts?

So many things!

In the beginning, the older children built simple tractors, but the majority really connected over slides. They would throw everything into the middle of the room or pile these honeycomb boards in a giant junk pile and slide down. Often a teacher would help build one or two that might be higher and more stable, but the junk pile slides had their own magic, since they might wiggle and jostle as the children slide down. This led to conversations about stability, safety, and risk. Children would often discuss between themselves if a slide or structure was sufficiently stable.

They loved making structures: helicopters, boats, cookie factories, hospitals, and playing in them. Their structures supported their theater magnificently. Problem-solving was really big and the materials naturally provided invention solutions: making the hospital bigger, adding another seat to the side of a tractor. There was also a lot of frustration with the materials. It was difficult for children to communication nuances to their ideas. "I can't do it." Children would come over to look at what was happening and try different ways. "No not like that!" Frustration again! But the children were often adamant in helping each other. I think they were more helpful because they knew when a structure was finished, the real fun would begin.

There was another big connecting moment as children built a bench on top of round parts. When they sat on it, they would fall off laughing and laughing. These moments of shenanigans weren't the kind of moments I would design during my planning time, always reaching for something more "meaningful" to the adult eye, but that kind of joy, connection, and creativity was exactly the underlining hopes I had for every part of my curriculum.

Towards the end, the sense of children's competence was profound. Towards the spring and onwards, many children were just elated at their buildings. Many times children would work together to build especially tall structures. Tall structures took longer to build since children needed to problem solve how to get materials up so high. I think these big structures had multiple elements of accomplishment: the reflection of their competence, the power of changing one's environment so profoundly, the sense of social belonging to a working team.

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